The French Revolution had brought lots of change to France. In July 1989, the state prison Bastille was assaulted and the feudal system was abolished. In 1792, King Louis XVI was deposed and France was turned into a Republic. The National Convention first met in September 1792. In January 1793, the former king was beheaded by means of the guillotine. After Louis XVI’s execution, a period of violence dawned: terror took reign over France.
In the spring of 1793, France found itself in an economic and political crisis. Poor laborers, called sans-culottes (for they did not wear the knee-breeches, culottes, that were common in the noble circles), blamed the Girondins for this crisis. The Girondins were a group of delegates in the National Convention that belonged to the upper middle class. Their name was derived from the department Gironde in the southwest of France, where many of the members came from. Their opponents in the Convention were the Montagnards, whose members were mostly Jacobins, a club of politically left-orientated anti-monarchists. People were frustrated that the social equality the revolutionaries had aimed for was not yet established. The Montagnards accused the Girondins of fighting for their own benefit only and not pursuing the goal of the revolution, and they even believed the Girondins would be willing to cooperate with royalists in order to remain their power.
In several parts of France, royalists had taken up arms against the revolutionaries. The uprising in the Vendée, a coastal region in the northwest, was the biggest war between counter-revolutionaries and republicans, and had cost about 200,000 lives of civilians and military. But uprising also took place in other regions like Lyon and Marseille. At the same time, a coalition of British, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese armies were surrounding France to fight against the Revolution.
Meanwhile in Paris, the sans-culottes and the Jacobins teamed up and formed a mighty force against the wealthy Girondins. A Committee of Public Safety was set up in order to defend the French nation against its enemies, and to oversee the existing organs of government. Maximilien Robespierre, one of the leading persons in the Jacobin club, called the people to revolt against the Girondins in May. In a three-day armed insurrection, the Jacobins managed to expel the Girondins from the convention, and the Girondin members were arrested and later executed. The Jacobins now had taken over the power, but they were radicalizing more and more. Robespierre grew to be the leader of the Committee of Public Safety. The Committee established a decree named the Law of Suspects in September 1793, which ordered the arrest of all confirmed and suspected opponents of the Revolution. The law was extremely strict – saying something critical about the revolutionary government or not using the Republican calendar could bring someone to the guillotine.
The guillotine grew immensely popular during the Reign of Terror. The new execution machine was designed by Antoine Louis and Tobias Schmidt, but was named after Josephe-Ignace Guillotin, who proposed to use the machine for capital punishment as a means for a more humane method of execution. The condemned was decapitated by a blade swiftly falling down onto his neck, so his pain would only last a split second, as opposed to the suffering a condemned had to go through on, for example, the breaking wheel. Also, the guillotine was used for people of all classes – including kings and queens. Tens of thousands of ‘suspects’ found their death at the guillotine during the Terror. The executions were a popular form of entertainment, and thousands of Parisians would attend the beheadings at the Place de la Révolution (now Place de la Concorde). A curious group of regular attenders were the so-called tricoteuses; knitting women who would sit beside the podium every day. They had become completely unemotional towards the many executions. And as with all repetitive things, the Paris crowds eventually were wearied even of this gruesome shows - by the end of the Reign of Terror, the spectator masses had thinned substantially.
The Terror ended with the fall of Robespierre in 1794. He was overthrown by a Montagnard conspiracy and condemned to be executed by the guillotine himself. His attempt of committing suicide failed and he found dead by beheading on July 27. With this event, the most radical phase of the Revolution was over. Over 16,000 heads had rolled during the Terror, 14% of them were aristocrats or clergy, 14% middle class and 72% workers.
Victor Hugo - 1793
Charles Dickens - A Tale of Two Cities